Interview with Steven James and Christian Book Previews' editor, Debra Murphy
CBP: Share with us your Christian testimony.
Steve: I grew up going to church as a kid. My parents took me to church every Sunday from the time I was 46 seconds old until the time I got to college. I understood a lot of the stuff, on an intellectual level, but on a deeper level I never really connected with it. I remember when I was in college I was working as a wilderness guide. I asked my boss if I could have off on Easter to go to church. He asked, "Are you a Christian?" and I said, "Yeah, of course." So he said, "Why don't you come to church with us?" I'd grown up going to a really orthodox, Lutheran church, with organs and stained glass windows and chanting. The whole deal. I said, "Sure, I'll go to church with you." And so, we were driving to church and he said, "Well, our church might be a little different than yours was." He's a charismatic, went to a Pentecostal church. We got there, and people brought their own tambourines to their church, and I was, "Whoa. This is different." What happened, even though theologically I maybe didn't agree with everything they were saying, I couldn't argue with the joy that I saw in the people there. I went home and said, "God, I've been telling people for as long as I remember that I'm a Christian. I want you to help me live it. If I've never really trusted you, like I need you, I want to." And really it was a transformative time in my life.
I look back and see that God had been drawing me toward him for a long time, but that was really the time his story really took root in who I was. A couple of years earlier I had gone out with someone, some girl I liked in college, and as I was telling her all about high school and how I played basketball, she had asked me, "Steve, what was your God in high school?" And that question had really shaken me up. I mean, before I was a believer, but it led me to questioning what I do believe and who I live for. I realized that I had been living for myself, and eventually then God led me toward the charismatic church.
CBP: Where do you make your home now?
Steve: We live in Eastern Tennessee, near the Blue Ridge Mountains.
CBP: Where do you worship now?
Steve: A place called Grace Fellowship Church, it's a conservative, non-denominational evangelical church.
CBP: What else have you done in addition to wilderness guide?
Steve: I worked for a while as a program director at a camp. I worked as a museum educator. I worked as a youth pastor. I write, I speak around the country. So it's been interesting. I also taught junior high school and high school for a while, and hosted a radio program.
CBP: So how did you get into writing books?
Steve: Well, I was writing for a number of magazines for years and said, "This is crazy. I can't make a living doing this." So I started putting some proposals together and about summer of 2000 the picture picked up pretty quickly. Since then I've been moving more away from writing for magazines and writing books almost exclusively.
CBP: You have over 15 books?
Steve: Yes, since I got my first big contract in the summer of 2000, I've gotten 27 contracts.
CBP: Some of them have interesting titles. Like, How to Smell Like God.
Steve: I think that's one of my favorite titles. There's a verse in 2 Corinthians where Paul says, "We are therefore the aroma of Christ to the world." And when I read that one time, I thought, What does that mean to smell like Jesus? It's a book for teenagers that talks about what it means to get to know Jesus and become like him, and spread his fragrance.
CBP: Can you highlight a couple of other books?
Steve: There's a book Becoming Real, which is for adults, it was my first adult inspirational book. Praying From the Gut, it's another one for teens, and it's a prayer journal. Gut-level prayers. And then Story: Recapture the Mystery is my newest book, and it marks a new direction in my writing and I'm really excited. It is more image-based, evocative writing, than your traditional devotional.
CBP: You have a Master of Arts in Storytelling. That is not common! How did you even find that?
Steve: Well, when I was an undergraduate student I was doing some storytelling, speaking at schools and performing some around the midwest. There's a festival called the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, near where I live now. I went back there in '91 I guess, and someone was handing out flyers for this Master's degree program in storytelling, so I stuck it in my files. Later, when I was considering going to graduate school, I remembered this. I pulled it out of the file, and looked into that. I was thinking of going into counseling or storytelling, but storytelling seemed a lot more fun and less work. It's interesting because I have my undergraduate degree in outdoor recreation, and my Master's degree in storytelling. So I have one degree about how to play, and one in how to talk.
CBP: Why contemporary storytelling to tell the Christian story?
Steve: Especially this new book. I think Flannery O'Connor had a quote in Mystery and Manners, she's a novelist. She said, "A story is a way to say something that cannot be said any other way. It takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is." I think there are certain things that you just can't explain that you have to tell a story. That's why Jesus told stories. He didn't explain himself to the crowds. The only way to speak certain truths was through stories. The mistake we make today is to try to explain everything, instead of letting stories do the work.
CBP: You say something to the effect that people don't absorb truths just written on paper, but that you have to write it in a story.
Steve: I think in a lot of cases that's true. There's an adult story about truth and parable were talking and truth said to parable, "I just don't understand it. Everywhere I go, people turn their backs on me, laugh at me, they look away. They won't listen to anything I say." Parable said, "Truth, I hate to be the one to point it out to you, but you don't have any clothes on. You're naked. The naked truth. You've got to dress yourself up. Look at me." Truth looked, and Parable was in beautiful clothes and so Truth said, "I suppose it couldn't hurt." So he went to the store and got some clothes, but he didn't know what kind to get. So he got some that looked just like Parable's. So Truth was walking along the road when someone said, "Hey Parable! Oh, it's Truth! How are you?" And for the first time somebody listened to what Truth had to say. And people say that from that day forward, Truth and Parable have been good friends, in fact, when you see Parable, you'll find Truth standing right by his side.
CBP: I wish a lot of people knew that. You attempt to write through the eyes of biblical characters at times. Why is that so powerful?
Steve: It's almost natural for me to step into the shoes of one of the characters and tell the story through their eyes. In fact, I did a book called Never the Same with Zondervan, came out last year. It was all monologues. Biblical characters who tell about what it was like to encounter Jesus. I find it natural. Also, for me, it does help me to see the connection with the biblical story to what I want to be like.
CBP: Another aspect to your style is poetry. It does seem to express some things that storytelling alone doesn't.
Steve: Sometimes I think the only way to say something is to speak the silence between the words, and that's what poetry's able to do. It's interesting because nobody wants to publish poetry, everyone's scared of the word. Poetry won't sell, and things like that. I'm just going to say, "This is where I feel it needs to go." My goal in a poem is never to write something that people aren't going to get, because I don't like poems I don't get. Instead, try to say something in a way that resonates with people, but isn't explanatory.
There's a story about a dancer who danced this incredible dance. When she was done, someone from the audience walked up to her and said, "I don't understand that dance, it was powerful, it really moved me, but I don't understand something. What did it mean?" And the dancer said, "If I could tell you what it meant, I wouldn't have to dance it." I look at a good story or poem and think if I could just explain it, I wouldn't spend the time trying to write a poem or a story, I would just tell you. But I can't. There's a way that has to be said, and the only way to say it is through a different form.
CBP: The areas that you touch on in this book, one is when people say, "This will change your life."
Steve: (laughing) It always bothers me when people do that! One of my publishers sent me a book, and on the back of the cover it says three different times, "This book is life-changing," and "It will change your life," by three different Christian celebrities. I say in Story that a hernia will change your life. I don't know why people say that, change isn't necessarily a good thing. A car accident changes your life, but it isn't necessarily a good thing. What we want is to encounter the transformative power of Jesus to become who we were meant to become all along. I think sometimes it's a gift and sometimes it's a curse, but some things really bother me. Like a comedian is always pointing out stuff, really light, that everyone says, "Oh, I never noticed that."
CBP: Another area you touch on is addiction.
Steve: I think all of us have chains in our lives, and very often they're subtle, for church-going people they are socially acceptable. Being addicted to eating, it's pretty socially acceptable. Gluttony today in the church is pretty common. I have a friend who, when he was growing up, revival preachers would come through all the time and they would always preach that it was a sin to drink and stuff, but they're all way overweight. He said they never seemed to see their blind spots. For some people, it's sexual sins, for others it's gossiping, or work, or Cheetos, or caffene, or whatever. Jesus did come to set us free, and I think that the first step toward that is recognizing areas in our lives that have control over us, and try to allow him to have control over those.
It takes a lot of courage and humility to approach areas of our lives like that, especially ones that are so socially acceptable in Christian circles.
CBP: Another thing that you talk about is that we all have a story, and that we are a story.
Steve: There's a J ewish saying that God created man because he loves stories. I love that the saying is so enigmatic, in other words, it doesn't say who the "he" is referring to. Is it God or man? It's both. So it's a very classic Jewish folk wisdom. Every one of us, in the lives we live, are stories that go from being lost, hopefully to being found. From wandering in the wilderness to finding the promised land. It's fascinating to me that when Jesus came, he came as a storyteller. When you look the Bible, it isn't the lesson about God. It's the story about God. The problem we do today is we try to package God up in creeds, doctrinal statements, statements of faith, we call it systematic theology. The problem is theology isn't systematic, because God is not a subject to be studied. It's not an algebra problem.
CBP: You also said he didn't come to bring us a religion.
Steve: No! He didn't. I mean, I understand when people talk about Christianity as a religion because it does answer and address the issues of meaning and ultimate purpose. But Jesus never once told people to be more religious. He just said, "Come to me."
CBP: You also touch on the fact that nothing else matters, this is a short life.
Steve: You know, in the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon says, "It's better to go to funerals than festivals." I read that and thought, what in the world is he talking about? I think what he's getting at is that often in our life we fill our life with distractions and diversions, and very rarely do we think about the things that are vital. The fact that we only have this moment, right now. We're not promised a thousand tomorrows, we're not promised even tonight. But we have a moment, right now, what will we do with this moment? I think that one of the first steps toward true wisdom, is to recognize the gravity of life. All through the Bible it says that. Your life is life is like a mist, in James. In Psalms it says it's like a flower that blooms and then is gone.
CBP: And we're not promised freedom from trials.
Steve: No. The question of pain and suffering is a difficult question, I think. There aren't a whole lot of easy answers to it. I think there are glimmers of the answers sprinkled throughout Scripture, and one of the fascinating ones to me is where it talks about God being able to work good out of any circumstance. I think of it like, no matter what note our choices play, God is able to weave them into a great symphony. Sometimes, even though we make choices, and experience things that are a lot of discord and pain, and we feel that the note of our life is way out of tune, somehow he's this great orchestrator who can take it and form something beautiful.
CBP: You talk about Jesus as a storyteller, and you tell the Christian story in a beautiful way--a story that we all know. We can become numb to the story at Easter time, and you made it live again.
Steve: I think what happens too often is that we try to tell people about how the story is supposed to make them feel. They're supposed to be full of joy because it's Easter, but we sit here thinking, I know I'm supposed to, but I'm really not. But the only way to really be moved by a story is to experience it. When you watch a movie, the only way to really experience the emotion at the end, whether it's happiness or tears or whatever it might be, is to really encounter the story. Not have someone explain it to you. So my goal with this book was to try and recapture the essence of the biblical narrative of the story. Not to explain it, not theology, or any of that, but instead to try to capture the imagery and poetry, the glory, the pain and the ache and the wonder of the story, and people could read it. And even if they don't maybe agree with everything at the end, that they would be moved to say, "Yeah, I get it. Now I understand what Easter is about. What the Christian story is at its essence."
CBP: Thank you, Steven! You have a beautiful touch with words!